The existentialist left conservative

Ben Wolford

It’s been two years and four months since

the death of Norman Mailer. In honor of him,

here are some excerpts from a discussion

between Mailer and William F. Buckley on Firing

Line in 1968.

Buckley was interviewing Mailer about his

latest book, “Armies of the Night,” published

in 1968, which recounts the anti-Vietnam War

demonstration at which Mailer got drunk and

was arrested. You can find the whole thing on


NM: So far as I know my reasons for getting

drunk that night and so far as they had a point,

one of the points was that I’ve always found

the Left to be as stuffy as the Right. In other

words, the extreme Left is about as boring as

the extreme Right, and I think both suffer terribly

from this … I just wanted to get up there

and show them a man can be drunk and make

no pretensions about it and have a marvelous


WFB: Is there a point at which you would

have considered that you would not have been

prepared to disobey the law, that is to say if the

penalty was enormous?

NM: Let’s say if the penalty had been life

imprisonment, what I would have done is been

forced to go underground or leave the country

or turn into an enemy of the country.

WFB: Well, aren’t you in one sense an enemy

of the country?

NM: No, sir. Not yet.

WFB: What do you mean, not yet?

NM: I still believe that this country is a

marvelous country and that one fights within

this country. If one’s completely wiped off the

board, in other words if you really have no

way to fight your ideas any longer in this country,

then you have to decide one of two things,

which is either one, your ideas are wrong, or

two, the country is wrong.

WFB: Correct, but we have for instance

Mr. Gore Vidal, who says that unless we elect

an anti-Vietnam War president in November

of 1968, he will renounce his citizenship. His

reasoning is that if in fact the American people

ratify a war that he considers so detestable,

then he will finally be convinced the American

people are not worthy of being associated with.

You don’t share that, do you?

NM: Well, I don’t because for one thing I

don’t think the vote is a pure expression of the

people at any given time, anyway. The vote is

much too crude an instrument to measure what

real feelings are in the country. Moreover, politics

is extraordinarily complex and dialectical

and contradictory …

The way I work, and it’s very difficult to

explain this to people, but I don’t think in categories.

I try to think in this way, that the world

is better off if every so-called type in the world

is better. In other words, it’s a better world

when the cops get better and the criminals get

better. It’s a poorer world when the cops are

dull and the criminals are dull.

In other words, as an existentialist, what I

believe is that what’s really important about a

moment is how much life there is — how much

psychic life, how much spiritual life, how much

physical life.

WFB: I think we’d better stop and rescue

that from banality.

NM: Please do because I can’t see where the

banality is.

Ben Wolford is a junior newspaper journalism

major and a columnist for the Daily Kent Stater.

Contact him at [email protected].